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Laboratory staff analyze the size and speed of water droplets from a new nozzle by using a pulsed laser and high-speed video camera. Link to photo information
Agricultural engineers Heping Zhu (left) and Richard Derksen (center) and technician Barry Nudd use a pulsed laser and a high-speed video camera to evaluate a new spray nozzle for its efficacy in watering nursery and greenhouse crops. Click the image for more information about it.

Learning to Grow Better Nursery Plants—Better

By Don Comis
February 22, 2006

A new monitoring system developed by Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists in Ohio is teaching researchers and nursery growers how to grow better trees and horticultural plants using more precise, efficient and safe applications of water, nutrients and pesticides.

The system is the brainchild of a team assembled over the past three years by Charles Krause, research leader and plant pathologist in the ARS Application Technology Research Unit at Wooster. ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s principal scientific research agency.

Although the lessons learned in the research are still experimental, they’re already being adopted so rapidly by nursery operators that some in the industry expect the ARS monitoring system to be commercialized within the next few years. Nursery managers have reduced water use by 40 percent or more by applying these lessons.

The system monitors plant needs year-round, currently using 30 sensors for each of three sets of 50 trees. Tests are being done at Willoway Nurseries in Avon, Ohio, on Red Sunset maple, redbud, and Chanticleer pear trees. The sensors and a weather station linked to computer data loggers take readings—every minute, 24 hours a day, during the growing season—of measurements such as soil temperature and moisture.

The tests are being done with an increasingly popular production technique called “pot-in-pot,” in which potted plants are set inside holder pots permanently buried in the field. This especially lends itself to the new monitoring system, but is not the only technique that would work with it.

Excess water draining from the pots is measured and evaluated for quality and levels of wasted nutrients and pesticides. The system has shown that applying water at a slower rate several times a day reduces total water use and has revealed that the trees were being over-fertilized. It also promises to be the safest way to target pesticides, pumping them through hoses to individual spray nozzles attached to stakes in each plant pot.

For more details, see the February 20006 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.